UNTIL recently the O’Farrell government threatened to go through its first term completely unnoticed.
After 16 years in opposition it was hardly bursting at the seams with plans for NSW.
The Coalition just drifted into office like a makeshift raft on the flood tide of discontent which swept Labor from office.
For 12 months we heard nothing from an administration seemingly content to let the public’s fresh memories of Labor’s last dysfunctional years do its work for it. An opposition with just 20 members in the lower house was always going to struggle. But now Labor has an issue: The Star Casino scandal. Barry O’Farrell looks vulnerable. Just how much he knew of – or was involved in – the events surrounding the dismissal of Star Casino executive Sid Vaikunta, will play out in the coming days.
Regardless of what is established, when allegations of impropriety reach deep into a leader’s office the entire business of government becomes sidelined. All the resources of the Premier’s team become focussed on dealing with that one issue.
Other ministers and their offices can do little other than look on and hope.
I know from my own time in a premier’s office how completely diverting such events are. The ICAC inquiry into the so called Semple affair was a case in point and years before that I was a staffer in the Wran government and saw how preoccupied the premier’s office became when Neville Wran was forced to stand aside for several months. Those ministerial offices untouched by the inquiry were powerless spectators of the events engulfing the premier’s office. This, I strongly suspect, is precisely what is happening to the O’Farrell ministry.
So, if O’Farrell survives the current inquiry, the big question will be how he and his government bounce back.
Having set a rather relaxed pace in his first year, it will be very hard for him to come up with a circuit breaker to get back on the front foot.
Before the Star inquiry he really wasn’t under much pressure to do anything too dramatic. But now the dynamic has changed – the honeymoon is over and the public and media will be viewing the government and O’Farrell himself though more jaundiced eyes. This is the price he will pay for his casual approach to his first year.
Possibly the only real option for O’Farrell is to have a major reshuffle in order to create some kind of momentum. The government is already top heavy with 20-year veterans of the Greiner era: Hartcher, Page, Hazzard, Souris, Gay and Skinner were all there when I was a youngish opposition staffer. A reshuffle would also give the Premier the excuse he needs to rid himself of Environment Minister Robyn Parker.
If O’Farrell survives without making sweeping changes to his ministry he will be seen by the next generation of Coalition hopefuls as part of the problem – the chief protector of the old guard. If that happens he will be vulnerable as the Bairds and the Berejiklians start circling.
Bruce Hawker is a political strategist and former chief of staff to Bob Carr
Barry O’Farrell’s first major political move was to trip over